On Dead Cats
In my childhood home, the animals came to us. The cats came in waves, some of them starving, some lost, some covered in ticks with bellies full of parasites. Some chose us. Others we had dumped upon us by circumstance. We could never let a cat starve. When a new cat showed up, it was my dad’s job to insist that there’s no way we were keeping this one. As my sisters and I stretched out on the floor to rub the foundling’s belly, he would say things like, “Don’t get too comfortable. Your days here are numbered.” He would joke about throwing it out to the coyotes, though there were no coyotes in our part of Iowa. No coyotes, but a large house in the woods away from busy streets, which for a time was a domestic animal’s paradise.
He was my first experience with death as something both permanent and unfair. Death was for ailing great-grandparents, incontinent dogs, and strangers on the news. Smokey had been a stray, and he was black. When giving children the privilege of naming an all-black cat, you can guarantee that they’ll end up naming it something stupid like Smokey. He was another who wasn’t supposed to stay, who my father threatened and rarely petted, but he was with us at least two years, virile and healthy and above all young when Mandi found his body frozen to the deck in the snow. When she told me he was dead, I went into my room and closed the door. I cried and realized that there was no possible way to make this situation better. He was dead forever, and that meant I would never ever see him again, and I couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t dead, because I’ll always know that he died suddenly and unfairly, frozen to the deck. After spending enough time alone, I joined the other mourners, my sisters, who were floating around the window watching my dad pick away at the ice and snow to disengage the corpse from the ground. His body was awry, twisted by sudden and mysterious death, and he didn’t seem like him anymore. We must have buried him. We probably even had a funeral. But all I remember is my dad putting his stiff body into a paper bag head first, and walking away with the cat’s hind legs and tail sticking out of the top. Though the body was obviously in the grips of rigor mortis, his slightly bent tail moved a bit at the tip with my father’s quick steps, and I wanted to stop him, to tell him to wait. Please check him again. He’s moving.
“What a happy cat,” people who didn’t know would say about her, and she was far from a happy cat. They thought she walked around purring all the time. How the constant rattling of her lungs, the choking and coughing and laboring to breathe could sound like happiness was beyond me. Halley was a purebred Siamese. She had come from a breeder who had a room of cages stacked high, wall-to-wall filled with wheezing cats. Later the vet would say that she had the worst case of asthma he had ever seen. He would say that he had never heard such terrible breathing when an animal wasn’t having an attack. We could hear her coming from anywhere in the house. Her crackling breaths announced her presence.
She wasn’t sociable. She didn’t like anyone but my mother, and my mother loved her. We thought it was weird—Halley looked like an alien, with giant eyes and an elongated face, her body scruffy and scrawny from a malnourished kittenhood. She didn’t care for being petted, would dip her back against your hand, but occasionally curl up and sleep in your crotch or on your butt while you were lying down. My mom and Halley had a bond, but for some reason, it fell on me to give her her daily asthma pill. And she was terrible at taking pills. When I became more experienced, I would hold her tightly under one arm with the corresponding hand around her chest, and with the other hand, shove the tiny pill to the back of her throat through the side of her mouth. When she gagged, I’d grab her muzzle and hold it shut while she pawed frantically at my hand, trying to slip away from my grasp. I’d pet her throat and say, “Swallow. Swallow. Swallow.” Eventually she did.
She was six years old, and she’d had two seizures in quick succession. Her breathing was worse than ever, and the vet said she wouldn’t last through Thanksgiving, when we were leaving town. So they shaved her dainty paw and held it as if she were some aristocratic lady about to dance. They offered the needle like a spray of perfume. As the needle slipped into her skin, she struggled, but with the expunging of the syringe’s contents, she went limp. I watched the transition in her eyes, one second wide open and scared, the next wide open and empty. The life had sunk out of her body, seemingly as soon as the syringe emptied. It was quick. The vet and the tech left the room while my mother cried and petted her dead body on the table. She tried to close Halley’s eyes, but they just snapped back open.
Mali was no accident. She was a deliberate acquisition, a purebred Abyssinian with almond eyes and sleek fur, her confirmation resembling a hieroglyph. Everyone liked her because she was beautiful, but I liked to think she didn’t like anyone the way she liked me. I was in middle school when we got her as a crazy kitten, and I made her like people by regularly forcing her to be held and petting her while informing her, “You’re a nice kitty.” As I grew into adolescence, Mali and I were similarly aloof and bitchy unless we were with our people, of course.
Interlude: When I talk to people who don’t like cats, they usually say something about how their dog loves them unconditionally, is at their beck and call, does what they want and will always be affectionate. I like dogs, and uncomplicated love has its perks. But I always say that when an animal has moods and feelings like you do, when they’re selective, it’s different when they choose to bond with you, when you know they wouldn’t just love any asshole on the street. And I think of Mali. She wasn’t terribly friendly, but she loved me. And for some reason, our Japanese exchange student, too.
I was in high school pulling an all-nighter when she came to me for help, but I didn’t realize what was going on. Her sleek fur was ruffled, and she was crying at me, but I was busy, I had college to get into, and I walked back and forth all night, between computer room and living room, my trifold presentation on starvation and drought in the Sahel taking shape with images of hollowed out eyes and alien limbs and floating bits of text. She followed after me meowing and I ignored her.
Within a couple days she wasn’t even moving. I placed her on my bed where she’d always slept, and overnight she expelled foul black liquid in two places on my comforter. I was seventeen and by that point scarcely believed in god, but I decided to use my last ounce of hope to pray that if she were going to die, let her die that night, with me. God said no. We took her to the vet the next day.
Back from school, I heard from my mom that it’s liver failure. We can either go to the vet to take her home, where she’ll likely die (but when?), or go to put her to sleep. I hadn’t made my decision in the car. The vet called my mother’s cell phone to tell us about the fluid collecting in her lungs. I made my decision, and I just wanted to be there so she didn’t die alone in a cage. When we arrived in the waiting room, populated with people and their pets on leashes, a tech sheltered us around the corner from the other patrons and told us quietly that she had just died. What followed was my first experience as a young adult falling apart completely in public. My entire upper body crumpled to my thighs, and I wailed, “no”, over and over again. The tech quickly ushered us into an exam room so we wouldn’t disturb the rest of the customers.
Inconsolable in my chair, they brought her in, wrapped in a blanket, appearing limp and asleep. The vet told us she had died in a tech’s arms, that the cat was so far gone she probably thought it was me. I said nothing, but I was sure it was a lie. She died in a cage, scared to death. The vet continued to talk. I wouldn’t think I’d want to hold her, but I did. The vet talked for what seemed like an hour, and toward the end, my attention was drawn to the cat’s eyelids. One lower lid was stuck overlapping an upper lid, and I noticed the traces of glue. Her jaw was going slack, and I could see that there was something inside, white and plastic, to keep it closed. I looked curiously at their presentation, and that’s when I gave up the cat’s body.
Sammy, Tiger, Luke (a dead dog)
Returning to Iowa after my first year of college, my home had become a different place. It was the first time my parents had lived without children, and the entire living room had been transformed to some kind of dog-sanctuary. The floor was strewn with new plush dog beds, bones, and toys. After plopping down in an overstuffed chair, I suddenly remarked, “Ugh, it’s dirty.”
“That’s Ivy’s chair,” my mom said, referring to our young English setter.
Meanwhile, the cats I grew up with were getting old and requiring increasing care. Sammy, the long-haired Birman, once handsome with a non-matting coat, had become grizzled and decrepit. He was only bones under the tangled fur that came out in clumps, and he spent most of his time hobbling around, bleating aimlessly. On my visit home, I watched as my mom hung a bag of fluids from the ceiling fan, then held Sammy on her lap and slipped the IV under his skin at the scruff of his neck as he squirmed in discomfort.
“We try to do this every day,” she told me.
Within a year, my dad had moved out and all the animal care fell on my mom. The old cats demanded to be fed high calorie wet catfood several times a day, and would only eat on the counter. Since they no longer had the physiques for jumping, they had to be lifted up to eat, then placed on the ground again once they were finished. Meanwhile, lacking the attention they were used to, the dogs were becoming increasingly protective. They travelled in a pack, roaming the grounds, barking and chasing at the slightest provocation. They blocked unknown cars from the driveway, their hackles raised, snarling. They chased bikers. They all took chase if one noticed a stranger too close to our property. They hunted in pack formation, listening for raccoons throughout the night. If one dog gave the signal, they would all clamor outside to surround their prey.
I was living in St. Paul and concentrating on school and my life away while my parents were divorcing and my mom was losing control of the house, the animals. Around the same time, my sister Natalie suffered a manic episode and spent a few days in the psych ward. I tried not to think about it too much in my daily life, catching only glimpses of despair in occasional e-mails and phone calls. That summer I came home for a week, my semiannual visit to face what I took refuge from the rest of the year. I came home to a household that was falling apart, while everyone seemed paralyzed in denial, inaction. The divorce was really happening, it was becoming increasingly obvious that we wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the house, and Natalie had come back from her stint in the psych ward crazier than ever. On top of that, our aging pets were facing a host of illnesses, tumors, weight loss, and when I asked if they’d been to the vet, my mom told me she hadn’t gotten around to it, she had a lot on her plate.
Maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was because at that point I was possibly the least damaged person in my family, but I was determined that I would fix as much as I could in that one week. I made vet appointments for all of the animals, the dogs on one day, the cats on another. Of the dogs, I was most concerned about Luke, the arthritic fourteen-year old English setter. Fatty tumors had been appearing all over his body, but the most troublesome was the one on top of his head. It was crusty, black, and growing, bubbling up pieces of diseased skin that periodically broke open and bled. The other dogs wouldn’t stop licking it, which made it bleed more. More dark, crusty tumors popped up over his eyelids, bleeding into his eyes and obscuring his vision.
My mom helped me the day we took the dogs to the vet. Sliding open the door of the minivan, I pulled Luke’s leash and called him out. He hesitated at the step down from the car, then tried to jump out and collapsed on the ground. I just stood there while my mom wordlessly lifted the eighty pound dog from the ground, as if she did that kind of thing every day.
I was assertive with the vet. I told her that these tumors were bothering him, that they needed to be removed, that we didn’t want to run tests, we just wanted to get rid of the tumors on his head. The vet was reluctant. “He’s very old, are you sure?”
Yes, I’m sure. I didn’t know why him being old mattered. He may be old, but even if removing those tumors improved his quality of life a little, surely it was worth it. We scheduled the appointment for the surgery, which wouldn’t be for months.
Next were the cats.
Let me tell you about Tiger. I found him in our garage on a very cold day after Christmas when I was seven. He was curled up on an old roll of carpet near the garbage bins, meowing a low, deep meow that I would never hear from him again. I picked him up and he instantly curled up in my arms. When I took him inside to show my dad, he gave me a look of disgust and said, “Is it alive?”
He was half-frozen and starving, but I was just a kid and didn’t realize how close to death he probably was. We nursed him back to health, and I named him Tiger because when you give a kid the privilege of naming an orange cat, you can guarantee they’ll name it something stupid like Tiger. He gradually became a robust, happy, affectionate cat who spent most of his time hunting or in the barn. He had a strange, staccato walk because of frostbite on his toes. We thought his scratchy, screen-door meow might have been because of damage the cold had done to his vocal cords. He was my cat, the first stray I had found and brought home.
When I was sixteen he was diagnosed with feline AIDS. The vet suggested we put him down then, but he seemed so happy and healthy. He remained healthy for years after that, even causing us to doubt the diagnosis. His health started failing around the same time as the other geriatric cats. He lost so much weight that when you petted him, you could feel every knob of his vertebrae, jutting hipbones, hollow at the flank. He began walking with his head tilted, his gait always a “pace” in horse terms; stepping simultaneously with both feet one side of his body, then both feet on the other side. I iterated all these details to the vet as Tiger sat on the exam table with his eyes half-closed.
“I can run some tests, but I won’t find out anything good.” She was perplexed that I would even bother to bring this cat in if not to put him to sleep. I petted his skeletal frame, my logic seeming weaker by the second as I said, “I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to make him more comfortable.” She gave me more high-calorie wet catfood.
I gave my mom new instructions about the animals, made sure she remembered the date for Luke’s surgery, and went back to school. It was months later that I got the call--my birthday, actually. Not an unusual time to get a call from my mom. I just wanted to let you know that Luke died. He had the surgery, came home and just went to sleep. He couldn’t handle the anesthesia at his age.
That was why the vet had asked if I was sure I wanted him to get the surgery despite his old age. Because surgery might kill him. It hadn’t occurred to me. I was too busy on my weeklong kick of getting things done, fixing my family within a limited timeframe. Now Luke was dead as a result of my naive proactivity. I had killed my beloved childhood pet.
I got a few phone calls and e-mails throughout the year, my last year of college. Some of them delivering news. Sammy died. Tiger died. I didn’t press for details. I had failed spectacularly in the little action I had taken to help. Moreover, my parents were still divorcing, my mom still couldn’t afford the house, and Natalie was still crazy.
For the first time, the dogs outnumbered the cats, and Patchy was the only first generation cat still living. Natalie had found her as a stray only weeks before I’d found Tiger. She was a muddy tortoiseshell with an overeating problem that stemmed from her days of starvation, and a meow that was both frequent and strident. She had spent all her life as the quintessential Omega cat. The other cats chased her, probably because as soon as she saw them she would hiss and growl, but she had nothing to back up her swagger and always ran. Sammy was the biggest wimp of a cat that we owned, and even he chased her. Even as a decrepit old cat, he hobbled after her with his ears back, meowing menacingly. She had outlived them all, and was becoming more at ease without so many other cats around.
It was Father’s Day, and since I was in town, my mom had invited my dad over to the old house that wouldn’t be ours for much longer. Natalie was pacing. We all pace in my family, but since Natalie got out of the psych ward it seemed she could never stop moving. I sat at the table writing in the card: Happy Father’s Day! I got you this BA in English, which is a pretty crappy present. Sorry about that! My mom was rushing around doing her hosting duties and trying to contain the bitterness that saturated her interactions whenever my dad was around. My dad had just arrived. Mandi wasn’t there.
Mid-pace, Natalie screamed and we looked to the window. I hung back, only catching a glimpse of tortoiseshell fur, mangled and lifeless on the deck. My dad went to her, then my mom. All three went outside and stood around the body. I couldn’t hear them, but I watched them, silent, Natalie’s face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. My dad took her and pressed her into his chest as she cried. The door slid open and my mom came back inside, sighing and muttering about getting the shovel. They stood like that for a few minutes. I could see my dad’s lips moving. After a little longer, my mom returned with a shovel and a cardboard box. She gingerly lifted the cat from the deck and placed her in the box. With a sympathetic pat on the back, she offered Natalie the box. She took it, Dad took the shovel, and they began the procession into the woods. They found a spot in the pet cemetery guarded by the sitting Buddha statue, and my dad began to dig. Natalie watched, holding the box, her shoulders shaking periodically. The hole had to be deep, deep enough that other animals wouldn’t dig it up. As he dug and dug, I could see the sweat pooling through the back of his shirt. Finally, he motioned to Natalie, and she knelt and lowered the box into the ground. He covered it with dirt with the same sweeping, laborious motions, packed it well, and placed a stone over the top. Then they stood, facing the grave, their backs to me. My dad put his arm around Natalie and she leaned her head against his shoulder. I could tell he was talking quietly. I could imagine what he was saying, in his low, soothing voice. She lived a good life. If you hadn’t rescued her from the cold those years ago she never would have made it, never would have gotten to live here with us. She was very old. It’s not your fault.
Inside, we were more shocked than devastated. We knew she was very old, but she didn’t seem to have any particular health problems other than the constant fatty tumors in her sides. She still ate and used her litter box and walked around a little slower than she used to. My mom had last seen her near the area where they found her. All of the dogs had chased her to the railing of the deck and were barking viciously at her. My mom yelled at the dogs but was distracted by something and went away.
We hadn’t known cats to just drop dead, but we hoped that maybe Patchy had been spared the deterioration, the fluids that begin to sludge out of orifices onto inappropriate surfaces, the vet visits with pricks and squeezes. The stains and smells and yowls of a cat that doesn’t understand why it’s hurting. The choice between waiting for nature and ending the pain. Maybe she really had beat it all and been given a quick, painless death.
But this idea never settled with me. We couldn’t say otherwise to Dad, and certainly not to Natalie, but my mom had a theory. “She looked messed up,” my mom said, twisting her face, “Like something had messed with her.” When I asked what she meant, she shook her head and refused to elaborate further. My mom had seen her on the railing with the dogs going crazy barking at her like she was a raccoon or something. She thought that after she left, they had pulled her from the railing and shook her to death.
Cats and dogs had coexisted peacefully in our household for over twenty years. The only time the dogs even got involved with the cats was when breaking up catfights. The Shitzu would yap after the perpetrators to scare them off each other, then choose one cat to chew and snort on the back of their neck as if in an attempt to irritate it to death. Never anything more. Never anything violent. The thought that our dogs had become so wild, so pack-like, that they could have done something like this made me nauseous.
Life had been happening to us all, and we’d been so wrapped up in it that we had neglected the danger that the dogs had become. You couldn’t even blame them, exactly. They had just resorted to their primal instincts, and we had lost control.
We had lost control.